Meaningful Church Membership
As you know, we normally preach through books of the Bible, but today is a special day. Today is Membership Sunday at Refuge Church. We’re accepting our first group of members.
So this Membership Sunday, I want to consider church membership under three headings:
Church membership is God’s glorious idea
Church membership is revealed in God’s Word
Church membership matters to God and is good for us
So, what church membership is, where we find church membership in the Bible, and why church membership matters so much in our moment.
1. Church membership is God’s glorious idea
What is church membership? Simply put, church membership is a commitment to join Christ on his mission with his people for his glory.
Jonathan Leeman defines it this way:
“Church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”
Now that’s a good, formal definition. It would be good to look at this in your community groups this week.
But what does it mean practically? It means that as an individual, you’re saying to Jesus and his Church, “Jesus, I’ve counted the cost, and I know what you’re asking me to do as your follower. You call me to love God and to love others as myself. I’m ready now to join your local, definable people to live that out. I take responsibility for them, and them for me. I’m not here only to receive but also to give. I want to receive care, but I also want to extend care to others. I want to grow in you, and I want to help others grow in you. I want others to know me and help me when I sin, and I want to know and help others. I want to submit to godly leadership. I want to be all in with Christ’s church. I want more than a taste. I want the real thing.”
In other words, church membership is more than scrolling down and hitting “Agree” on the pop-up screen to proceed. Church membership is a considered step toward Christ and his people. It is a full-hearted agreement with his call to community and a full-bodied involvement with his people.
The apostle Peter helps us see this. Though he’s not directly addressing church membership, in 1 Peter 2:9-10, he helps us think rightly about it. He says,
“You [Church] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
“You are a chosen race.” So, a church member is a member of God’s chosen race, an offspring of Abraham, a descendant of the called out family of God.
“A royal priesthood.” A church member is a member of God’s royal family. Though we are children of God, we are more than mere passive children. We are active priests to one other, able to minister to all around us, bringing the gospel to bear upon our lives.
“A holy nation.” A church member is a member of God’s holy nation—the people set apart to himself for blamelessness and spotlessness, for his own glory.
“A people for his own possession.” A church member is a member of God’s family—one who has forsaken the ownership of the world for the care of Jesus, the one and only God.
“That you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” A church member is a herald of the King, a bringer of the gospel, a witness to the grace of God, a soldier in Christ’s army fighting against the darkness and spreading the radiance of his marvelous light, displaying the many excellencies of Christ.
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” A church member is one who was once not a people but who now is, one who once had not received mercy but now has, one whom God has gathered together into a gospel family.
As Pastor Kevin DeYoung says, church membership:
1. Identifies us with Christ.
2. Distinguishes us from the world.
3. Guides us into the righteousness of Christ by presenting a standard of personal and corporate righteousness.
4. Acts as a witness to non-Christians.
5. Glorifies God and enables us to enjoy his glory.
6. Identifies us with God’s people.
7. Assists us in living the Christian life through the accountability of brothers and sisters in the faith.
8. Makes us responsible for specific believers.
9. Protects us from the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
So, understanding how important it is for our souls and the advancement of the mission of God, church membership is not an optional add-on to the Christian life. If anything in this world calls us to commitment it is Jesus Christ. He not only calls, but he also takes the first step. He stepped out of heaven to join us in our flesh. He stepped into obedience where we only ran the other way. He stepped into Pilate’s court as the crowd released Barabbas. He stepped onto the cross. He stepped into the grave, and three days later he stepped out of the grave so he could step toward us in newness of life. Jesus Christ was committed to us, and he’s calling us to be committed to him by becoming members of his church.
But you may say, “That’s a fine description of church membership. I even agree to a certain point. But I have my doubts. Where is this in the Bible anyway?”
Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s look.
2. Church membership is revealed in God’s word
The entire New Testament speaks not only of the church but to the Church.
One of the reasons it may be hard to understand today why church membership matters is because, at least for us here in the Southeastern U.S., there is very little risk associated with church. But it was not always so, and it’s not so today in other parts of the world. The early Christians risked their lives to join the church. Luke tells us in Acts 5:12-13: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”
Why did the rest not dare join them? Because it was a social risk! It could cost their lives. But the Christians watching had no qualms about joining. In the early church, Christians were only found in the local church.
I wish we had time to look at all the biblical reference, but we don’t, so we’ll just look at a few.
My friend Nathan Rose, a pastor in Kansas City, organizes it under three headings, which I’m borrowing this morning.
First, the early church kept track of its members.
In Acts 2:41, Luke tells us, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Added to who? Added to the church, of course.
In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul says: “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works.”
So there were rolls in the early church.
Second, certain commands assume meaningful church membership.
The author to the Hebrews tells us in 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
How can we obey our leaders and submit to them, and how can they watch over our souls if we have not committed to one another.
Furthermore, how are leaders held accountable for people who haven’t covenanted with them? If we don’t have meaningful membership and Dustin and I go off the rails with heresy and sin, who will cast us from among you?
Third, church discipline can only work if church membership is in place.
What happens when sin enters the church? How is it handled? Jesus and Paul told us what to do. Church discipline is a biblical call, but it can’t happen apart from church membership.
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
It is those inside, not outside, the church that are to be judged. How can one determine insiders and outsiders without formal membership? If I leave Jesus to pursue sin, how can you hold me accountable if we haven’t committed to one another in membership?
Church membership is thoroughly biblical. We could go on and on, but we don’t have time. We have one more topic to discuss, one of utmost importance.
3. Church membership matters to God and is good for us
Why does church membership matter? Isn’t it just a formal structure we can take or leave? What’s the big deal?
You may say, “I can be part of Christ’s cosmic church without joining a local church.” To that, I would say, “Try it.” Try being a sideline-Christian. Try saying to your fellow Christians that you worship with week-in and week-out, sit in a community group with, fellowship with, and say, “I really love you, but I don’t want to covenant with you. I don’t want to commit to you. You never know, another church down the road might give me more of what I’m looking for. I want to keep my options open.”
You might not say those words with your mouth, but your unwillingness to enter the church body says it with your actions.
More importantly, you’re saying to Jesus, “I love you, but I don’t love your church.” Theologian Russell Moore says,
“Saying ‘I love Jesus’ but hating the church is as irrational as saying to your best friend, ‘I like you–I just can’t stand being around you.’ Your attitude toward the church tells you–simply–your attitude toward Jesus.”
Now, I’m not trying to pile on anyone. I’m simply trying to express how important this is. After all, Jesus does call his Church his Bride. Commitment matters to him.
Church membership matters because it is the Church that Christ promised to build. It matters because it is the Church that is on the offensive against the gates of hell and the gates of hell will not prevail. We all know an army is stronger than an individual soldier. A Church is stronger than a Christian.
The world is a dark place, isn’t it? What’s God’s answer to this present darkness? It’s the Church! My friend Jared Wilson says, “The Church is God’s Plan A for the world, and there is no Plan B.” If you want to join Christ in pressing his light into the darkness, you cannot do it apart from the Church. The Church is where he works. The Church is where he saves. The Church is where he builds. The Church is where he moves. The Church is who he’s coming back for. When you join the church, you’re saying, “I will not let the darkness overcome the light. I will join Christ’s army for his glory. I will join my brothers and sisters not with a noncommittal I’ll-make-it-if-I-can attitude but with a firm I’ll-stand-by-you-and-die-for-you conviction worthy of the risen Christ.”
And as we do that, we find that through his gospel doctrine, God creates a gospel culture. And as we follow the Lamb wherever he goes, he creates a gospel family on mission together to evangelize the world for his glory alone.
In closing, you may be thinking, “Well, that sounds great, but I’m not sure I can do it. Sometimes I even wonder if I’m a Christian. Sometimes I fail to obey. Sometimes I struggle with intimacy with God.”
Well, Jesus said he did not come for the righteous, but for sinners. You may come in some days needing your fellow members to carry you on a stretcher. That’s fine with Jesus. He came to heal the paralytic. You may come some days so blinded by the world that you can’t see. Well, Jesus gives sight to the blind. You may come in so discouraged and lifeless that you’re not sure you can sing praises to God. Well, you’ve got brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who will lift your faith up with their faith.
And those days you come in feeling good and ready to praise the Lord, it’s your job to pick up those limping in. You can’t fix them, but Jesus can! And maybe they need your help for years. Fine. Keep taking them to Jesus as they keep taking you to him. We’re in this together, guys!
Can we do that?
I know we can because Jesus died for his Church. He hung on the cross., and he took all our sin with him into the grave. And on that third day, he rose victoriously, and came walking toward us, gathering people in every city, in every country, in every nook and cranny of the world into local churches, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against the work of God. Sorry, Devil, Christ’s Church is here, and we’re going to be triumphant in him!
We can have meaningful church membership because what Jesus died for, he will give life to. Jesus died for the church. He will give life to it.
Church membership is God’s idea, it’s revealed in his Word, it matters to God, and goodness knows, it’s good for us.